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Georgia Pecan Harvest Hit By Hurricane and Drought

AS Al Pearson maneuvers his 1984 dusty blue Caprice Classic through one of his many groves of pecans on the Big Six Farm, he says he is worried about this year's crop. He stops the car and pulls a Stuart pecan from a heavily laden limb. Rolling the smooth brown nut between his palms, he explains, ''The quality of the nuts is good, but they're small, and volume is down this year.''

Mr. Pearson's family has been growing pecans and peaches for three generations, and he harvests nuts from trees his father and grandfather planted. But even though he grew up in the business, the farmer is still troubled as the holiday season approaches.

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Before hurricane Opal hit last month, the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service predicted 81 million pounds of nuts this year, 31 million pounds more than 1994, but much less than the '93 bumper crop of 150 million pounds. But the lack of summer rain and the high winds from hurricane Opal are expected to decrease the 1995 harvest by 1 million to 5 million pounds.

Pearson, who has 800 acres of pecan trees, also is concerned about the market price, labor, wildlife, and the weather. Though pecans are now harvested with machines, growers still race against the elements.

Workers cannot operate the equipment in the rain. And once the nuts are on the ground they must be picked up before the deer, raccoons, crows, and possums eat them.

The harvest season is short and intense since the nuts are most in demand for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Pearson says, ''We only have so many days. Pecans have a longer shelf life than peaches, but it's still a mad rush to get 'em to the early market for the holiday trade.''

Pearson grows 12 different varieties and sells through local wholesalers. Like most of the close to 600 Georgia growers with 30 acres or more, he sells the larger nuts to the gift-pack industry and the mail-order food business. The smaller nuts go to shellers or brokers.

The pecan capital of the world, Georgia produces an average of 100 million pounds of the crunchy foodstuff annually. Pecans are a multimillion-dollar industry with an average crop value of more than $70 million annually. Even when production fell to 65 million pounds in 1990, Georgia still had a larger harvest than Texas, the second leading producer.

While early explorers discovered this member of the hickory family growing wild along the Mississippi River Valley when they first came to North America, pecan orchards weren't planted in Georgia and the Southeast until the early 1900s.

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''Georgia's pecan industry is still in its infancy,'' says Tom Crocker, a horticulturist at the University of Georgia Extension Service who specializes in pecans. ''We're trying to take a forest tree and make it into a horticultural tree. Genetic improvement usually takes 45 to 60 years.''

The trees planted in Georgia now are the improved varieties developed through careful grafting. The most commonly grown kinds - Desirables, Stuarts, Schleys - are larger than the wild varieties, but are still prone to alternate bearing. One year a tree will produce a bounty of nuts, and the next year it will not.

''It's hard to manage your business from a marketing standpoint when you have such a wide fluctuation in bearing,'' Pearson says. ''Buyers want a dependable supply on a consistent basis.''

Like growing peaches, growing pecans is capital intensive. Besides the initial investment of land and trees, growers must invest between $200,000 and $300,000 in equipment for harvesting, spraying, fertilizing, and mowing. By the time the trees are mature enough to bear marketable nuts - generally after six or seven years - a grower has usually spent more than $2,000 per acre.

As an executive-board member of Georgia's newly formed Pecan Commission, Pearson wants to see increased research and promotion of Georgia's pecans. ''The commission will try to expand the domestic and international market,'' he says. ''Nothing is off limits.'' Despite his worries about this year's harvest, Pearson looks toward the future. He hopes one of his three children will eventually take over his groves and harvest the trees he has planted. ''All in all,'' he says, ''farming's been good to me.''

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